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Enter the Jew. In this way does Shakespeare usher the character Shylock into his play The Merchant of Venice, and here begins the greatest controversy that plagues this work. The Elizabethan era, the time in which Shakespeare lived, was a time brimming with hostility toward Jews. Elizabeth’s own court doctor, a Portuguese Jew, was condemned to death (unjustly, history says) after rumor spread that he might assassinate the queen. Shakespeare’s own peer playwright, Christopher Marlowe, had already written The Jew of Malta, a play full of prejudice and stereotypes – the main character, Barrabbas, named after the infamous serial killer in the Bible, is one of the most bloodthirsty and heartless characters in literature of that time period, and not incidentally, he is a Jew. The Merchant of Venice is also a seemingly very anti-Semitic work. Shakespeare displays anti-Semitism in his play through the terrible things he writes for the Jew to say, what he has other characters say about this Jew and conversely about the Christians, and in the very way he chooses to portray the Jewish culture.
Shylock the Jew says many things that appall the audience. To what likely would have been (in the time of Shakespeare) an audience almost completely Christian, he says that he hates a certain merchant, “for he is a Christian…” (I.iii.42) Already at his first appearance Shylock has caused the audience to dislike him. Throughout the play, he also fulfills the common stereotype of the time that Jews are greedy, stubborn, heartless and bloodthirsty, but most notably at the trial of Antonio and the events just preceding. Shylock is a usurer, one who lends money at high interest in order to gain great profit at the expense of his customers. He repeats, to the pleading Antonio in the presence of a Jailer, “I’ll have my bond.” (III.iii.13-17) The bond he wants is a pound of Antonio’s flesh, and so Shylock exposes himself in one statement to possess three of these sinful qualities: he is stubborn in repeating his desire, heartless to show no mercy, and bloodthirsty in the desire itself. Throughout the trial, Shylock further shows the quality of heartlessness. Even in light of Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech (IV.i.190-212), he refuses to show mercy to the Christian he so hates: “I crave… the penalty and forfeit of my bond” (IV.i.213-214) Shylock is made to sound like a terrible villain through his own words.
There is another side of Shylock’s words, however. In some instances, rather than lose face in the eyes of the audience, Shylock in fact entreats the audience to see his point-of-view. He asks, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons… as a Christian is?” (III.i.57-60, 63) He is asking to be recognized as a fellow human being to this opposite race of Christians. Certainly this seems to serve to muddle the argument of whether or not this play is anti-Semitic, but it does not, in fact. Because the vast majority of Shylock’s words serve to condemn him in the eyes of the audience, his words can be said to have an overall anti-Semitic effect. Shakespeare, in hindsight, perhaps saves his reputation for being well educated and broad-minded when he includes this appeal by the Jew to his audience, while being of his time in maintaining a generally anti-Semitic atmosphere in order to play into the prejudices of the audience of that day.
Other characters help to paint a bad picture of the Jew. Shylock’s servant, Lancelet, has an entire soliloquy devoted to the question of whether or not “to run from this Jew [his] master” (II.ii.1-2), and names Shylock a fiend and a devil throughout. Shylock’s own daughter, Jessica, laments, “what heinous sin is it in me/To be ashamed to be my father’s child?” (II.iii.16-17) She eventually runs away from her father, converts to Christianity, and marries a Christian. All of this serves to instill a sentiment in the audience that this must be a terrible man, a villain (who, by definition, is getting what he deserves) so despicable that even his own daughter will remove herself from him, physically and by changing religion. Shylock is also referred to by Christians as “the most impenetrable cur/That ever kept with men” (III.iii.19-20) and as “an inhuman wretch, /Uncapable of pity, void and empty/From any dram of mercy” (IV.i.3-6) These again serve only to strengthen in the audience the stereotypes that the Jew is stubborn and heartless, and that he is a terrible man – so say the Christians, and the audience, being likely predominately Christian, would side with these opinions.
Other characters serve to lionize the Christians in the play as well, further villainizing the Jew. In fact, there are two separate plotlines in the play – one involving the conflict of Antonio and Shylock, and the other involving the marriage of Portia, eventually to Bassanio. One of these (Portia/Bassanio) serves exclusively to show the goodness of Christians, even while the other shows the villainy of the Jew. Portia is referred to as fair, benevolent, “a blessing” (III.v.74), and possessing innumerable other excellent qualities. Bassanio, in making the right choice of caskets, seems a wise Christian, as opposed to those other foolish suitors to whom no religion is specified. Shakespeare has made sure to tie together the qualities of “Christian” and “Good” in every way. In the Antonio/Shylock plotline, Christians are also praised. Antonio, the tragic hero, had the tragic quality of only being too generous and benevolent: “the good Antonio, the honest Antonio – O, that [there were] a title good enough to keep his name company!” (III.i.13-15) He changes to rather a simple hero when in the trial it becomes evident that he will not die for his flaw, but he always remains a Good Christian. Throughout each plotline in the play Christians are praised and shown to be by and large Good.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of Jewish culture misrepresents Jews to the audience of the time. For instance, when Shylock first enters, he is almost certainly wearing “[his] Jewish gaberdine” (I.iii.122), a traditional black dress worn by those of the Orthodox Jewish faith. Shakespeare’s audience, however, would read the black clothing to mean that this character is evil – this, of course, certainly promotes anti-Semitism. Then, when Shylock’s daughter has run away from him to convert to Christianity and marry, Shylock wishes that “[his] daughter were dead at [his] foot… [he] would she were hearsed.” (III.iii.87-89) The truth is that when a member of an Orthodox Jewish family converts to Christianity, the family would actually hold a funeral for them; that person is essentially dead to the family. Shakespeare’s audience, though, would almost certainly not know this, and would interpret it as quite a hard-hearted comment, more fuel for anti-Semitism. So, even Shakespeare’s accurate portrayal of Jewish culture depicts the Jew to the audience as a terrible man.
The Merchant of Venice taken as a whole demonstrates anti-Semitism. The Jewish race is shown to be vile by Shylock’s words and those of other characters, as well as by the misrepresentative portrayal by Shakespeare himself. Shylock, the representative of this race, is the villain of the play, getting what he deserves at the end of his trial. The Christians, including the hero Antonio, are shown to be good in the eyes of the audience by the words of the characters. Even though Shakespeare might not have been anti-Semitic himself, he writes a play that caters to the prejudices of the audience of his time. Had he written a play that did anything but preach that Christians are virtuous, he would have received nothing but criticism from the theater community of England, no matter how true or important the lesson of the play might be. And so today one must take any discriminatory messages from the Merchant of Venice with a grain of salt; rather, enjoy the play for whatever timeless lessons and humor it might impart.
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